April 25, 2011

Guest Post by Clay Morgan: Lessons From a Pop Teacher & a Few Zombies

Just the other day I was giving a lecture on Europe after World War II. Many of the students were fading and staring blankly in my general direction. I was about to explain one of the most important parts of the entire course and needed them alert and free of mental paralysis.

Good thing I know so much about zombies….

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Job Search Inspired By Zombieland

Today’s guest blogger is one of my former students from my days at Metairie Park Country Day School. The daughter of two educators, Sarah Giarraputo Fischer is now all grown up and working her butt off really hard, trying to land a teaching position.

Sarah & her son Gibson

A wife and mother, Sarah offers hope to wanna-be teachers who find themselves praying for old teachers to retire, get fired or die so they might take over their classrooms. Okay, maybe kindhearted souls like Sarah aren’t hoping for old teachers (like me) to shrivel up and die, but she is definitely eager to get into her own classroom, and she has some great tips to offer. And, wouldn’t you know, like Clay Morgan (my last guest blogger), she found inspiration in  Zombieland.

So you want to be a teacher…

Well get ready for the roller coaster ride of your life. Oh, I am not talking about teaching; I’m talking about the job search! Cliché but true, my friends. If you are in the market for a teaching job, you need to have a thick skin, be creative and – when necessary – be a bit, well, ballsy.

After I graduated college, I spent a year in New York City (2001) trying to make it in the non-profit sector before setting out to look for a teaching position at an independent school. Without very much effort on my part, I was scooped up by a boarding school to teach English, run the dance program, serve as a dorm parent, and spend 24/7 on the campus. I was willing, able and ready to work for what seemed like a great deal – (after that year in New York City, a job that included room and board was basically impossible to turn down).

Now almost ten years after my first teaching job search, I am ready to go back into the classroom, but I am no longer a spring chicken. With a Master’s degree under my belt, four years of classroom teaching experience, and over four years non-profit management experience, I have a lot to offer. But I also expect decent pay and benefits plus time to spend with my family. I can no longer sell my soul to the school for nothing and, in many ways, that puts me at a disadvantage in this market.

Like most people, I hate the job search process. In fact, I feel the whole system is set up to make candidates feel like they are less than competent.

So how do I survive and why might you care what I have to say? Well, first of all – like you – I am in the thick of it. And second, I recruited, interviewed and placed AmeriCorps members for the past three years as teacher and tutors in Adult Education and ESL programs, so I have had the “privilege” of being on both sides of the job search.

In order to stay positive and engaged in my job search, I looked to the soon-to-be classic Zombieland for inspiration (trust me the similarities between scenes of the undead in Zombieland and one of the larger search firm’s job fairs are numerous). And so I give you my three top rules for surviving the educational job search:

Rule #1: ENDURANCE. Just like characters in the film needed solid cardio to out-run zombies and other undead creatures, a person needs endurance to survive the job search. In Zombieland, all the fat folks were the first ones to get eaten – and the same can be said of those who expect a job to come easily and quickly. If you are not ready for some long days, hard work, and serious emotional ups and downs you might as well get eaten. Regardless of your teaching field (even the math and science folks are facing steep competition these days), the process seems to be a long one this year. There are simply more candidates with a variety of backgrounds on the hunt.

Rule #2: IF YOU HAVE MULTIPLE TALENTS, USE THEM. In Zombieland, people need to be ready to kill the undead with whatever implement is handy at the time. This can range for a pair of hedge clippers to a piano. In the job search, you never know what will get an employer’s attention, so do not be afraid to show off your unique qualifications. I have landed interviews because of my experience with community service, my ability to coach soccer, my experience running a Dance program and – most importantly this hiring season – because I have taught English and History. As more schools are striving for a more interdisciplinary approach, I am looking good.

[WARNING! WARNING! WARNING!]: That being said, be wary. The more you do, the more schools will ask you to do and if you happen to have a life or want one outside of work, you need to be careful about the contract you sign. You do not want to land what seems like the perfect job only to realize you have sold your soul. Engaging in a school community is a variety of ways is important (and I think the best educational practice for reaching students), but in order to be your best you need some balance in your life. This may be obvious to many, but when the market gets tough, I find myself trying to please to the point that I end up being unhappy.

Rule #3: ENJOY THE LITTLE THINGS. This rule is straight out of Zombieland but, hey, they got it right. Just like you have to let off a little steam in Zombieland in order to deal with battling the undead everyday, I encourage job-seekers to make the search more fun. This is not to say that you should not take the search seriously, but rather that you should not take yourself too seriously. This is especially if you have registered with one of the big teacher search agencies and have to attend one of their job fairs.

Personally, I dislike the impersonal corporate style of many of the big search agencies. Sitting at a conference sending little colored slips of paper and emails to perspective schools while having weird somewhat stilted conversations with other candidates who happen to be your competition is not my idea of fun, even if I have multiple interviews lined up. However, it is exactly this situation where Rule #3 is most practical. While sitting at a table of experienced teachers, take time to strike up a conversation and poke a little fun at the fresh-faced newbies. After all, they are willing to do more for less and might be taking your job so you might as well get a laugh out of it. If you are new to the scene, use the job fair as a networking event. You never know you might just find you true love sitting across the table while you both wait anxiously for an interview.

Also, do not forget to get out of the building and take some time off to enjoy whatever city you are in. This will make you much happier and more engaging when you return. Remember, no one wants to work with someone who does not have a sense of humor and, while the employer cares about your credentials, they also need to know that you would be a good colleague.

So those are my thoughts and rules for what they are worth. To those of you out there looking for a job, any job, keep up the good fight! We can do this! We can survive! And with any luck, eventually we will one day look back on the whole process and smile.

So how did Sarah do? What other tips can people offer to wanna-be teachers in this market?

Today’s guest blogger is Clay Morgan from EduClaytion.com. Besides being one of my very first cyber-friends in the bloggersphere, Clay is an amazing educator. He is a revolutionary. You know that game six-degrees of separation? Well, in the world of bloggers, it seems nearly everyone knows Clay. He gets around. Today he is sharing his thoughts about using Pop Culture in the classroom.

As a teacher, I’m often amazed at what pools of knowledge I must dive into in order to effectively communicate with my students.

Just the other day I was giving a lecture on Europe after World War II. Many of the students were fading and staring blankly in my general direction. I was about to explain one of the most important parts of the entire course and needed them alert and free of mental paralysis.

Good thing I know so much about zombies.

I’m not referring to the students although any teacher doing the job for a while knows what it’s like to stand before a room of pupils imitating the undead. I’m talking about the zombies of culture, specifically movies.

See, I needed to explain the crisis of Germany after Hitler’s death in 1945. Nations like America and England recognized the importance of a strong German nation, strength that was critical to European recovery. At the same time, someone had to keep an eye on nasty Joe Stalin and the Soviet Union.

But those pesky Russians and their nervous cohorts in France were sick of Germany. They despised the nation that had brought war on them twice in a quarter century. Tens of millions had already been killed. They thought letting those Germans come back again was just asking for global destruction. Plenty of folks wanted Germany turned into a parking lot surrounded by fields.

History as Yawnsville

So I’m teaching this anti-German plan named for U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau. Students must understand these events to get a grasp of the Cold War, our centerpiece for the rest of the semester. They didn’t seem too enthused. Then I remembered Zombieland.

Most of my students haven’t seen the greatest films ever made about WWII such as Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, or Life is Beautiful.

But they have seen Zombieland, a 2009 flick in which Jesse Eisenberg (the guy from Social Network) plays Columbus—a college student trying to survive in a zombie dominated world.

Columbus lives by about 30 rules, the most famous of which is probably #4: Double tap. You might not know what that means, but my college students do. It means shoot twice when the walking dead want you to join them. It means be certain that the monster you just defeated doesn’t get back up.

History that Pops

Do you see where I’m going with this?

My class was alive and kicking when I told them that the Morgenthau Plan was the 20th century attempt to double tap. Germany was the zombie. This analogy led to a great discussion on world power and how we should handle those responsible for human atrocities. My students will never forget the stakes of the post-war world with such a powerful visualization. Based on past experience, I have a feeling I’ll get an email in a couple years thanking me for a good class and joking about double tap.

Some education types say that movie references have no place in an academic setting. My question to them would be whether or not they want to connect with students or not. The past couple generations have been saturated in culture. It’s long been in our heads and now it’s in the palm of our hands.

Students live and breathe this stuff, so why not make it work for us? The best way to teach someone what they do not understand is by using what they do. You wouldn’t walk into a Chinese classroom and expect the students to understand your English. Same thing goes in Western classrooms. If you fail to speak their language, you will not be heard.

Applications for using pop culture in educational settings are only limited by our creativity. That’s why a bunch of us started PopTeacher.com, to pool together the best ideas out there so we’ll have a nice reservoir of ideas to dive into.

I expected opposition and ignorance from naysayers. I was even prepared to double tap their arguments. I did not expect such a fabulous response so quickly.

Clay Morgan, Superstar

PopTeacher.com has already been featured in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and I’m now being asked to speak at collegiate conferences about these ideas. That’s pretty funny because my pedagogical strategy consists of a) showing up for work and b) being myself.

The best response has come from dozens of teachers—grade school to higher ed—who are eager to share their experiences and ideas. More email comes in every week.

Teaching as a career is a grind that can wear us down. Then we risk getting tired and disconnecting. We lose effectiveness when that happens. Why not have some fun and dive into our bountiful culture? You never know where the interests of others will lead a discussion. You might even find a way to bring a group to life by talking about the undead.

So what do you think? Do you like the way Clay thinks? Would you want to be a student in his class? Have you ever been in a class where the teacher used Popular Culture references? What do you remember? Or do you think this kind of approach dumbs down our educational system?

Clay will field your comments today.

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